Gratitude … and the Day After Christmas

First of all, just let me say that I believe gratitude is a good thing.  Not only is it a good thing, it is a Biblical command – “Give thanks in all circumstances …” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  But there’s a problem with gratitude.  Gratitude looks back at what’s been done, given, or accomplished … therefore is an inadequate motivation for looking forward to tomorrow (John Piper helped me work this out years ago in my favorite book of his – Future Grace).

You and I said “thanks” for our gifts on Christmas morning, but we need something more to motivate us the day after Christmas.  What is that something more? Looking forward to the gifts that God continually bestows every day until He returns and for all of eternity!  That’s what Piper calls “faith in future grace”.  Here’s why I think this is a big deal:

We know what’s expected of us

It’s easy to be grateful on Christmas morning.  Most of us that have reached an age of understanding social norms recognize that we are supposed to say “thank you” to grandma, and express appreciation for what we were given whether we like it or not.  Any moralistic, behavior-oriented, socially-aware individual can do that (most of the time).  We are conditioned to perform, and even “giving thanks” can become a conditioned response.  I’m not suggested that we don’t say “thanks”, I’m just suggesting that we recognize where our gratitude can malfunction, and that there is more to gratitude that often gets revealed the next day.

When the expectation to perform is no longer present

In our house the day after Christmas ends up being the day to return what you didn’t like, didn’t fit, or want the cash from to buy something else.  Gifts cards that were gratefully received on Christmas get bartered away between siblings for cash to get what you really want.  Of course there isn’t anything wrong with returning gifts, it just alerts us to the great reality that the gifts of yesterday don’t satisfy in being the gifts of tomorrow.  We want more, different, or even if we loved what we got we want that feeling of pleasure to last as long as possible (I’m still basking in the glow of my Apple Watch, but it’ll fade over time).  My point?  The expected social gratitude … and even the proper Biblical heart response of gratitude is a flawed motivation for tomorrow.  It’s always looking backwards, and it’s often seeking an experience or feeling.

We get pleasures forevermore … greater than Christmas morning

The truth of the matter is that for the follower of Jesus even if everything falls apart the day after Christmas, we still have the greatest gift one could ever receive.  The kids can complain, the relatives leave grumpy, the house left in shambles, but Jesus is still enough.  The new year may hold suffering, disappointment, and broken relationships, but the Spirit of God is still at work sanctifying and conforming you into the image of Christ.  If we are merely motivated by gratitude when this stuff hits, then there is nothing to be grateful for anymore, and you have to coax up some regurgitated gratitude of days gone by to get you through.  But if motivated by faith in the future pleasures of God then we can face the day after Christmas … and everyday knowing that God is at work … and it only gets better!

So be grateful … I’m sure you have much to thank God for.  But be a person of faith … we have a God who gives good gifts to His children every day, and never ceases to make the delights of the Gospel precious to those who seek Him.

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Getting Happy

I love preaching on worship … because I love talking about the glory of God.  I mean really, what better subject is there to teach on? Everything centers on the wonder of who God is and what He has done through His Son in redeeming mankind … the greatest display ever of His glory to this fallen planet.  As I reflected further on this subject in my own life yesterday I remembered one of my absolute favorite quotes from one of my “hero dead guys” – George Muller, listen:

“But according to my judgment, the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things, see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord! Other things may press upon you; the Lord’s work even, may have urgent claims upon your attention. But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all other things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself. Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.”

What is being happy in the Lord other than a life of worship.  Muller had it figured out and sought after this life with every breath he took.  I think it looks something like this:

Not Finding Happiness in Lesser Things

Contrary to some “christian” teaching, I believe that the Gospel is about enjoying the good gifts of God on earth in anticipation of the good gifts of the new earth.  Our Father isn’t about giving us stones when we ask for bread.  He doesn’t shove a rock at us and tell us to make the best of it.  Rather He indeed has given us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).  And it is only when we recognize them as good gifts and not little gods that we can actually enjoy them to the glory of God.  When we try to suck life out of football and turkey, we ruin a good day.  But when we recognize the God of all glory who redeemed us from the futile way of life we formerly walked, then (and only then) can we rightly enjoy parade-watching, warm crescent rolls, and a lazy afternoon of beating your family at cards.  Why? Because we’re not trying to find happiness in those lesser things, we’re just enjoying them for what they are – little gifts from the God of glory who is the only truly satisfying Gift!

Anticipation that Fuels Contentment

I don’t live in the “holiday at the sea” that Lewis points us to, but that doesn’t mean that I should “live making mud pies in the slums” either.  It’s not an either/or, but a eager anticipation over a dismal acceptance.  I know that what God promises me is so much greater than anything this world as it currently is has to offer, and with such confidence I am fueled to live for so much more than mud-pie making.  That doesn’t mean I’m forced to a dismal acceptance of the current situation and must coerce contentment upon myself.   Nor does it mean I have to keep up a public persona of everything being “good, fine, ok” in the here and now.  It actually means I can be happy in the Lord regardless of the current mud without making mud-pies my food of choice … and I can joyfully anticipate the great feast awaiting me on my holiday at the sea.  That makes me happy and honest.

Everything as Worship

I think this is what Muller was getting at – When my soul is happy in God and that’s the daily business I attend to, then everything I do comes under this divine joy.  I can take out the trash with joy as much as when I study the Bible.  I can watch football with my sons with the same delight as I seek to help a struggling marriage in the counseling room.  And when the trash stinks, my study is laborious, the game is boring, and the couple’s marriage is disintegrating, my happiness is no less real … because it’s centered on the sure foundation of Jesus, and the not the shifting sand of the stuff of life on planet earth.

Creation and Humility

I spent my prayer time this morning at Holden Arboretum.  It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.  I feel safe, small, and satisfied in all the God is for me.  I don’t need gadgets, an office full of good books, or even anyone to be with me (and I like all those things).  They recently built a tower that ascends 120 feet above the forest floor over the tree tops where you get an unbelievable view of the fall colors and Lake Erie.  As I stood on the top and took in the beauty and prayed for my wife, kids, and church body … I felt really small.  It got me reflecting on the way humility works …

Small Looking Up

My regular position as a finite man is from the ground looking up.  It’s not hard for me to gaze into the sky and come to the awesome conclusion that there is a Creator and I’m not him.  Walking through the woods with towering trees over my head it only makes sense that I would be rightly (and delightfully) put in my place.  I like that.  In a world with such creative technology and scientific advancements, the illusion of control is all around us.  But on the ground looking up it’s a sweet conclusion to recognize – “I don’t control any of this, I’m needy, and overwhelming grateful that there is a Sovereign God in control of it all”.

Small Looking Down

This morning my position was different, but the feeling was quite the same.  I was up high looking down.  I was above the trees and over the lake, in an “exalted” position.  But strangely I still felt really small.  Looking down on things didn’t make me feel big, rather it made me feel the bigness of my God.  He made it all, rules over it all, and sustains it all effortlessly.  And I really liked that.  The people of Babel thought a tower would give them power and control, proving they had no need for a Ruler God.  Thinking themselves small they sought to be big … making themselves big they were made to feel they’re small.

Humility From Either Perspective 

I know pride still courses through my veins … I think I have some measure of control, and more importance than I do.  But by God’s grace I have a growing delight in the feeling of smallness, finiteness, and neediness.  I’m aware of what awaits me in glory, and I know the victory that is currently mine, yet to act now as though I’m a king feels foolish and premature.  I’m the child of a King, and as such I have both an awesome identity and a wonderful perspective from which to look up at the throne of grace, gaze over the wonder of the Creator, and worship from bended knee … and I love it!  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).  This is nothing other than embracing humility and enjoying worship.  And I want every perspective I have, from the forest floor or the highest height, to produce that in me more and more.

Happy Birthday Jonathan Edwards

Yes, I like celebrating birthdays of some of my favorite pastor-theologians, even if they are dead.  I even had a friend once make me a birthday cake for Edwards a few years ago …

October 5th, 1703 in Windsor, CT Jonathan Edwards was born.  He is considered by many the greatest mind America has ever produced.  I’m not sure I’m smart enough to be able to confirm or deny that, but I do know God used (and uses) him to shape a lot of my Biblical-Theological framework, and I’m indebted to him for that.  So, on this his 312th birthday I’ll offer one of the most important things Edwards taught me.

It’s Never Just Information

Understanding starts with truth, but for understanding to get translated into willful action it has to go through the soul.  I’ll explain that further in a minute, but to stop here and say how foolish it is (and I’ve been) to think that merely convincing someone of truth actually changes how they live.  To understand something as true and to live obediently based on that understanding are two very different things.  Many a person will attest to the validity of a particular fact, but that fact doesn’t effect how they live.  When it comes to Biblical data or the Gospel commands of Scripture, we can never be content to merely making sure the information is rightly conveyed and understood, because most of the time it’s not an information problem, it’s a worship problem.  We need truth, amen and amen.  But something can be true, affirmed as true, and not obeyed … that’s a heart problem.

It’s About the Inclination of the Soul 

This is where Edwards helped me immensely, listen, “The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things (the understanding), but is in some way inclined toward the things it views or considers.  It is either inclined to them or disinclined and averse from them.  The soul, because of this faculty, does not want to see things as an indifferent, unaffected spectator.  It either likes or dislikes, is pleased or is displeased, approves or rejects.  This faculty is called the inclination” (Religious Affections, pg. 6).   Truth understood does not translate into truth obeyed unless it is truth liked/pleased/approved, and that is an act of the inclination of the soul.

Edwards in My Everyday 

This is how I’ve often tried to illustrate this reality. It’s one thing for me to say – “This is a cup of coffee” (Understanding), but that doesn’t get me to drink it.  It’s quite another thing for me to say, “I like coffee and find it delightful to drink” (Inclination).  And going a step further to say, “This coffee is the best ever and drinking it brings me immense joy and pleasure” … Edwards calls those the Affections.  Now, coffee schmoffee … but the things of the Gospel, this is where it matters.  I can agree with a passage of Scripture I read in the morning, but do nothing to put it into practice.  This doesn’t honor God, even if I rightly understand the text of Scripture.  What I need is my affections stirred by the Spirit of God such that I delight in His truth, who He is, and the joy I get in serving Him with my life … now that honors God, because that’s WORSHIP.  And worship is what God has redeemed me for … in drinking coffee? Yes.  But even more by glorying in the work of the cross and the freedom that was purchased for me as His child.

Thanks Jonathan for yet another gift given to me on your birthday!

Thoughts on the Chardon Shooting: Just Who Is Wicked?

I’m a big fan of the Broadway musical Wicked.  The big question the story muses over is whether someone is born wicked or has wickedness thrust upon them.  It’s the age old question of nature or nurture.  And though it gets asked in different ways, it’s the question our community is musing over right now.  Here in Northeast Ohio, and the local communities of Lake and Geauga county, we have faced a tragedy.  Just 72 hours ago a young man walked into his school cafeteria with a concealed handgun and unloaded 10 rounds on his peers, killing 3, hospitalizing 2 others, and injuring an entire community.  Our first response is compassion and grief … we weep and pray for the great loss of precious young life and the families forever changed.  We fight off fear and the paralyzing effect this could have on thousands of other students heading off to their campuses.  Our hearts break for the permanence of such events and our inability to really fix anything.  And the second response has been to consider this troubled young man who did the shooting.  The media digs and uncovers the dysfunction of his parents, being raised by his grandparents, his isolation, violent tendencies, and on and on.  The natural human conclusions pretty quickly go to ‘how could we have prevented this? If only he had a healthier home life, or we need to hug our kids more’.  And as much as I am for human solutions, preventative strategies in our schools, and the building up of the family … make no mistake – Wickedness was not thrust upon him, he was born into it.  And so am I … and so are you.

James 4:2 says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder …” 

As a local pastor in this community I want to inject into this conversation that the same stuff that was in the shooter’s heart is in mine.  It may not result in murder, but it comes from the same place.  I’m wicked!  I was born a sinner to the core, and it is only by the restraining grace of the Spirit of God that my murderous heart doesn’t go to the very same place.  I’m certainly not arguing for justice to be averted or consequences to be avoided.  The Bible  clearly calls for justice, judgment, and punishment for the sinful choices we make.  And this young man will indeed face them.  It will help the victims, the friends, the community to know justice is served … but it won’t change us.  Until every one of us can look inside our own hearts, consider our anger, impatience, harsh words, and selfish behavior as rooted in the very same “stuff” as murder, different only in degree, then we will not truly heal.  Was wickedness thrust upon this young man? Perhaps.  But I guarantee you that for however poor a job his mom and dad did, they didn’t teach him to kill people.  I’m quite sure that grandma and grandpa didn’t give him this plan for acting out his hopelessness.  He got that from much deeper “stuff” that nurture.  He was born in wickedness, born a sinner, and born in need of the work of God in his life.  And so we all are.

Healing comes for the human heart and the heart of a community in the new heart only God gives through the glorious work of His Son Jesus Christ.  The cross is no fairytale, as much as this tragic event is no fairytale.  Sin is real, and at times like this we are painfully aware of the brokenness of not just the world, but our own hearts.  It is because of this that Jesus came to be the Savior of the world.  He came for murderous sinners like me.  He came to do what no one else could do … mercifully change me from a murderer to a worshipper of God.  This isn’t a Sunday sermon … this is a real life answer to the healing that must come to our community.  We need grace.  And that grace that can change us all comes only through our wicked hearts being changed by the righteous heart of Jesus.  After all the news stories stop, schools start back up, and we try to heal … will you please take some time to consider your own wicked heart.  This is the only thing that will change our community.

For the healing of our community,

Pastor Mark

A Great Act of Love – Not Complaining

I wonder how many people went around the table to say what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving Thursday, and then complained about the lines at the stores on Black Friday. It seems to me that we have become far too okay with grumbling and complaining about things … ok, maybe that just means I HAVE become far too okay with grumbling and complaining. We think it’s wrong to complain, but feel justified when we have a good reason to complain – “The service was poor, they totally offended me, they should be much more professional than that, those words were so hurtful, etc.” What ever happened to grumbling being a sin? I seem to remember a certain group of people wandering in the wilderness and not too happy with the menu that was being provided for them. They grumbled … and it clearly tells us in Exodus 16:8 that their grumbling was against the LORD. In essence they were saying, “You aren’t giving us what we want, You aren’t enough for us, You don’t give good gifts … we’ll take our business somewhere else Mr. Yahweh God.” It’s called idolatry, and we still do it today … every time we grumble. I think I’ve become too comfortable with grumbling in my heart, it’s one of those “acceptable sins” that everyone can identify with so nobody really thinks is a big deal. I’m just saying – It IS a big deal. It’s unbelief, selfishness, and sin! Philippians 2:14 isn’t a suggestion or helpful piece of advice, it’s a command – “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” Yikes! A grumbling heart is not a loving heart, which is not a rescued-from-death heart (1 John 3:14), which is not a Spirit-filled heart, which, yes … is not characteristic of a saved heart. I don’t think that means everyone who complains is going to hell, but I do think it means those who have been loved by God with His great love will work hard at practicing loving others … even the ones who annoy us, don’t love us back, and hurt us. If this non-complaining, agape-loving lifestyle isn’t what the child of God is about, then I think the Bible says, “even unbelievers love those who love them back, what good is that?” Anyone (and everyone) can complain and grumble, shouldn’t it be the case that those of us who have been redeemed by His great love (Ephesians 2:4) love others radically and stop our grumbling? Yes is the right answer to the question. Let’s all get ourselves out of the way this Advent season (and forever), to steadfastly love and patiently endure some minor inconveniences and mildly annoying people. After all, I’m sure I’m sometimes that minor inconvenience and mildly annoying person … so thanks for patiently loving me!

Still Learning to Love,
Pastor Mark

Pride & Prayer

I’m sure I’m just slow on the uptake, but I feel like God has helped me make a connection between a couple things in my heart that have proven so helpful in the process of self-evaluation and self-confrontation.  It’s the connection between my fight against pride and a passion for prayer.  (Yes, I’m fighting my pride even now in writing this for fear you’ll think me slow in recognizing something so basic).  It’s not that I haven’t preached, taught, and counseled on how a humble heart is a key ingredient in a heart that longs for God in prayer.  It’s not even that I haven’t seen God grow me in brokenness and the increase of prayer with that.  It’s that I trust the sound Biblical wisdom of men more than the desperate pleas for grace to Daddy.  Here’s how God has shown me this – I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated being prayed for or prayed over, like I do now.  When I’ve struggled, physically or spiritually, I’ve sought instruction and the sound truth of the Gospel to flood my soul.  That is a good thing, don’t think I’m suggestion something other than that.  BUT, when someone might ask me if they could pray for me, I’d think (honestly), “Sure, prayer is good … I already know what I need to do/think/be in this situation, but by all means pray if it helps you feel like you’re being a good friend to me.”  I hope you hear the arrogance in that response.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve now lived life long enough to know that there is SO MUCH of life that I don’t (and can’t ) control, fix, or manage, and out of that humble realization I want (and need) the supernatural power of God to intervene.  Now, I know that prayer isn’t the magic lever that I pull to get God to do His magic on me.  I know it’s not a “work of righteousness” that God keeps tally on so that when I reach the gold level He rewards me with a free drink.  I just know that the “flesh is of no benefit” and out of a sincere humility I want to pray, be prayed for, and pray for others.  If the pastor had asked if people wanted prayer over something in their life at the end of a service 10 years ago, I would have responded to that invitation 0 out of 10 times.  Now, I’m getting prayed for 10 out of 10.  And likewise, I find my counsel and shepherding relying far less on my sound words of Biblical counsel (though I give that because it must be there), but recognize that the real help someone needs is not going to be in only “understanding” the truth I give, but in the Spirit “transforming” their mind, heart, and soul.  So I love to pray for people, pray over people, serve people through prayer, bless people as I talk to God on their behalf with them hearing.  I don’t get on my prayer voice, I don’t wave anything over them, I don’t put confidence in my prayer, process, or posture … I just lovingly put my hand on their shoulder and talk to Dad about what they are going through, what I see in their heart, and for grace to be lavished on them in abundant measure.  Pride and Prayer just make prayer a silly religious activity that feels token at best and fake at worst.  So my word for you – Respond to invitations to be prayed for, and pray for people because God loves to hear the prayers of His people and to act on their behalf!

Talking to God about you,

Pastor Mark